A lot of mediocre and bad movies seem to follow the same formula when it comes to dealing with estranged parent/child relationships: parent and child meet or reconnect, there is resistance from one or both of them, they are forced together by circumstances beyond their control, bonding events occur, they reconcile in the end. Every once in awhile, a good movie will use this same formula and manage to avoid most of the sentimental pitfalls a reconciliation movie is prone to. Janie Jones is one of the good ones. It’s not a great movie, but certainly good enough not to make me regret attending the press screening on a rare warm October day in Seattle.
Janie Jones (Abigail Breslin) is the thirteen-year-old daughter of Mary Ann Jones (Elisabeth Shue), a single mother with more than just a little bit of a drug problem. Mary Ann desperately needs help, but has no one to take care of Janie while she’s in rehab, so she decides to take Janie to meet her father, who has no idea she exists. He is touring musician Ethan Brand (Alessandro Nivola)—his band is The Ethan Brand Experience—and one gets the feeling he’s been around the block a few times. He’s probably had just enough success to keep him touring, but not enough to ensure him a place on the charts. His band is on a comeback tour when Mary Ann confronts him with the existence of Janie and pleads for his help. He denies knowing her and the possibility that he has a child.
Mary Ann abandons her daughter at the venue, and, in response, Janie calls the cops. The responding officer manages to lay things out very clearly for Ethan: since he is the father listed on the birth certificate, he either takes custody of Janie or remains in town until a family services hearing is held. Ethan desperately wants to play at the SXSW music and film festival, and cannot bear the thought of anything derailing that, so he agrees to take Janie on tour with the band. Obviously, taking a young teen on tour is going to cramp their style a bit, but honestly, this is the least of their problems. Ethan is a self-centered jerk and his enjoyment (if that is the right word) of alcohol tends to fuel a lot of bad situations, both on stage and off. Eventually, the other members of the band leave, and Ethan and Janie are left alone on the road to continue the tour on their own. (It turns out that Janie has no small musical talent of her own.) There are high and low moments, and things end up pretty much where you think they are going to. The enjoyment of this kind of movie lies not in a shocking or downbeat ending, but the journey to a reconciliation that feels justly deserved.
There are two things that lift this film above more common fare: the lack of false sentimentality and the quality of the music. In a bad version of this movie, Janie and Ethan would not only end up a very happy father and daughter, but Ethan would have quit drinking, the band would have reunited, a better label would have given them a new contract, and a freshly cleaned up Mary Ann and Ethan would have made a few steps towards getting together. An equally painful, but darker, version of this movie would have had Mary Ann die of a drug overdose, Ethan succumb to his drinking demons, and Janie turning tricks to keep them on the road before the SXSW date got cancelled. I am somewhat exaggerating with my alternate scenarios, but anything near either of those versions would have been awful. As it is, Janie Jones is a low-key story that ends with two people being better off for having each other in their lives. All of their problems are not magically fixed, but we are left with hope that things can be made somewhat better with some hard work. Director David M. Rosenthal uses the reconciliation formula as a story-telling device, not as a tool to constantly manipulate the viewer’s emotions. The hopeful ending follows logically from the events of the narrative; I never felt as though the end was what it was because the dictates of the genre demand it. The use of the reconciliation formula does make this film seem very familiar (and sometimes sanitized and trite). But, for the most part, it manages to overcome that for some measure of grace.
The music in this film also helps it to rise above its genre. Alessandro Nivola and Abigail Breslin both sing their own music, and they both have really good voices. I usually hate movies about musicians because the songs are often horrible, but that was not a problem here. Ethan’s songs are written by Eef Barzelay and the songs for Janie are by Gemma Hayes, and both songwriters manage to capture the essence of the characters. I might argue that Janie’s songs are too mature to be written by a thirteen-year-old, but that’s a little nitpicky. Breslin has a lovely voice and her songs are great. To be perfectly honest, I think she is a competent actress, but she doesn’t have a great range. It wasn’t until she opened her mouth to sing that I understood why they cast her.
Both of the lead performances are good, and I’d like to call out a few smaller ones as well. Peter Stormare was very enjoyable as band manager Sloan, and it’s always good to see Frank Whaley in a film. He plays the band’s drummer (according to the press notes, a lot of the band dynamics are based on a band that he was in with his brother), and while I did find his character’s mannerisms to be slightly too broad for this film, I enjoyed his presence nonetheless. I think he is an underutilized actor and deserves more screen time.
Janie Jones is a nice movie, and I enjoyed it far more than I thought I would based on the description. (See alternate movie scenarios for my fears of what this movie could have been.) There is alcohol and drug use, both implied and overt, and if that is something you don’t feel comfortable with your teen watching, then maybe don’t bring them. But if you feel like your teen can watch without needing to emulate, I would say this is a good movie for families with teens to go to. It does deal with adult themes, but it is sanitized enough that it won’t disturb (or bore) a younger teen. It is by no means original, but it was enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.
Janie Jones opens at SIFF Cinema at the Uptown in Seattle today.
Final Grade: B